The attack in an >upmarket café in Dhaka has left 28 people dead , including six gunmen, and Bangladesh is clearly shaken. Over the past three years, the country has seen at least 40 targeted killings by militants, with each new attack raising fears about the growing clout of radicalised groups. The latest represents a marked escalation. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the nearly 11-hour siege. Till now the Bangladesh government has never accepted that the IS has been operating in the country. Even so, it is clear that IS-style rhetoric against minorities and foreigners and the use of horrifying violence are influencing Bangladeshi militants. >Of late, gay rights activists, Hindu priests, secular bloggers and Shia mosques have all come under attack . In the latest, assailants separated foreigners from locals and hacked them to death one by one. The timing of the attack, at the start of the Ramzan holidays, may also be significant. The IS has called upon its supporters to attack “crusaders” and “apostates” during the holy month of Ramzan.
The Dhaka attack takes the fight to the government of Sheikh Hasina. For months, the government tried to play down the threats from jihadists, saying those were the acts of local groups. Its focus was on weakening the political opposition, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party. When liberal and secular activists were attacked, the government partly blamed them for “insulting religious sensibilities”. When the > IS and al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the murders , the authorities said no foreign terrorist group was involved. It is only recently that the government launched a major crackdown on radicalised groups, but over this period the extremists have grown in strength to carry out mass attacks. The IS and al-Qaeda see Bangladesh as an arena of potential expansion.
The IS had released audio propaganda in Bangla. The simmering tensions between the government and the Islamist organisations have lent radicalised groups an opportunity to drive their agenda and find recruits. To address this, the government needs both short- and long-term strategies. The immediate task is of course to address the worsening security situation. The targeted killings started three years ago, but the government has appeared to hold itself back on pursuing the murderers and their handlers. The long-term challenge is to check growing radicalisation. In this context, the ruling Awami League, perceived to be at the liberal end of the political spectrum, must step back and reconsider its high-handedness in dealing with opposition and dissent. If Bangladesh’s democracy is hollowed out, only the extremists will benefit.